A Catskill Catalog: July 2, 2008

I’ve only recently discovered James Oliver, but I like him. He’s the graduate of the State Normal School at Albany who came to teach in Roxbury in 1849 when both John Burroughs and Jay Gould were about 12. Think of the future naturalist and the future capitalist as seventh graders: little Johnny the reluctant uninterested underachiever, little Jay the brightest kid in the class. Mr. Oliver had a profound effect on both of them, drawing-out young Burroughs’ natural curiosity, and directing young Gould’s restless energy.
Perhaps, James Oliver can be the patron of Catskill Mountain schoolteachers, a fellowship I proudly claim. When I joined the faculty of Margaretville Central School, several of my new colleagues had begun their teaching careers in one-room schoolhouses. Dot Lunn, school secretary, still answered the phone, “Central School!” as if centralization, even then 20-some-odd years old, was still something of a novelty. I was the guest of the American Legion, a couple of times, at their “Delaware County Schoolmaster’s Dinner.” Seemed Ichabod Crane-like quaint even then.
My point is, I guess, that we are not all that distant from the days of the one-room schoolhouse, where one teacher organized the lessons for every age, big kids taught little kids, and all the children of a particular valley went to school together from age six to age 14. You can see nicely preserved one-room schoolhouses in Margaretville, on Route 28 – The Old Stone Schoolhouse – and in Bovina up at the head of the Little Delaware River.
Often, the teacher would be only a few years older than the students. When John Burroughs graduated from Mr. Oliver’s Eighth Grade, he spent a few months reading borrowed books, then got a job teaching in a one-room school in Tongore, now Olive Bridge. That was in 1854. The schoolhouse is still there, identified in front by a blue sign historical marker.
There were over 400 one-room school districts in Delaware County alone by the late 1800s, 26 in the Town of Middletown, 23 in Andes, 20 in Roxbury, each district covering maybe three or four square miles. The curriculum was based on recitation and rote: reading, writing, and arithmetic, with an emphasis on memorization and outward correctness. Reading lessons emphasized reading aloud with correct pronunciation. Comprehension was secondary. Writing often meant exact copying of model texts with an emphasis on penmanship.
I do not mean to suggest that quality education was lacking. Merely that the curriculum was often dry and repetitive. A teacher like Mr. Oliver would be a revelation to his young scholars, with his emphasis on poetry and self-expression, nature study and history and curiosity about the wider world. He instilled in his students the excitement of learning.
Opportunities in the mountains for a secondary education were scarce right up through the 19th Century. Burroughs used his teaching salary to pay for a semester at the Ashland Collegiate Institute in Greene County. Later, he studied at Cooperstown Seminary. Both were secondary schools.
Closer to home, Delaware Academy in Delhi can trace its history to 1820, and the Delaware Literary Institute in Franklin, founded in 1835, was the precursor of that town’s public high school. Farm kids who wanted a high school education would often board in town, renting a room Monday through Thursday night in towns like Andes or Fleischmanns or Margaretville to attend the high schools that were, later, established there.
Modern high school education came to this side of the mountains when Marian Connell came to Margaretville in 1932, having just completed a Master’s Degree in physics from Syracuse University. Marian taught modern science and math, one of the first women in New York State certified to teach the hard sciences – biology, chemistry, and physics. In the crimped and narrow depression days of the ’30s, science seemed, even more so than today, the door to, not just progress, but the wonders of the universe. Miss Connell opened the doors to the universe for several generations of Catskill Mountain kids.
A 90-year-old friend, Margaretville High School Class of ’37, told me “She wasn’t like those teachers who put you down. Miss Connell made you feel like you were part of something!” A 50-year-old lawyer, Class of ’76, said the same thing. Miss Connell demanded rigor and attention. She was a formidable presence. Opening up the universe required students to read and analyze and experiment and think. Miss Connell valued achievement, and her students learned to demand more of themselves in order to achieve. No accident that Margaretville Central School Honor Society is the Marian Connell chapter, named for its founder, who taught 44 years, retiring in 1976.
Marian taught her students the value of community through her own energetic example. She was a stalwart of the Presbyterian Church, co-founder of the Fairview Library, and longtime member and secretary of the Margaretville Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees. I served on the latter board with Marian.
I can still hear her sonorous voice and measured cadence as she read the monthly minutes she had so carefully composed the month before.
James Oliver and Marian Connell: maybe we can have more than one patron of Catskill Mountain schoolteachers?